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Social work students explore Richmond history at the intersection of race and mental health

“We want social workers to understand the systemic and community context necessary for mental wellness, including the ways in which social work has upheld white supremacy,” organizer M. Alex Wagaman said.

RVAHub Staff

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By Brian McNeill

Princess Blanding, sister of Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old black man shot and killed by a Richmond police officer in May, stood before a crowd of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work students, faculty and alumni.

Her message: People experiencing mental health crisis deserve help, and we need to break down the stigma preventing them from getting it.

“Think about some of those words that prevent a whole lot of us and our family members and our friends from actually saying, ‘I need help. I’m going through something,’” she said. “The brain is the only major organ in our very complex system that, when it is in distress, we ostracize them, we pass judgment on them, we treat them as outcasts.”

Peters, a high school biology teacher and VCU graduate, was unarmed, naked and undergoing what Blanding described as her brother’s first mental health crisis on May 14. As he charged the police officer, the officer tried unsuccessfully to stop him with a Taser, and then shot him.

“Marcus needed help,” Blanding said. “He didn’t need, nor did he deserve, death.”

Blanding was a keynote speaker Tuesday at “Richmond [Re]Visited 2018: The Intersections of Race & Mental Health,” an event organized by the VCU School of Social Work Black Lives Matter Student-Alumni-Faculty Collective that explores Richmond’s history and provides context for issues affecting social workers and community members.

The event, now in its fourth year, focused on a theme of mental health and racial justice.

M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., a member of the collective and an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, said the goal of this year’s event was to help participants — students, faculty, staff and alumni — gain a “better understanding of the ways in which our country’s history of violence toward people of African ancestry is a form of intense trauma that has never been healed.

“We want social workers to understand the systemic and community context necessary for mental wellness, including the ways in which social work has upheld white supremacy,” Wagaman said. “And we want everyone to identify ways that they can practice social work through a racial justice lens, including the dismantling of white supremacy in our communities and the organizations where we work.”

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Schools, nonprofits hustle to feed over a half million Virginia students: ‘It’s incredible’

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need. More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still fighting to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia with free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Capital News Service

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By Hannah Eason

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need.

“It gets me out of the house,” said McBride, who has been a school bus driver for 18 years, “and you know, you’re doing a great deed and helping people out.”

More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still working to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia eligible for free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have been closed since March 16, though students were originally slated to return by March 27.

Whitcomb Court resident Simone Sanders said her children are now eating at home during the day, but she didn’t receive an increase in food stamps. One child is disabled, which prevents Sanders from being able to work.

“It’s affecting us bad, especially in the projects, and there’s nothing for the kids to do all day,” Sanders said. “And then you have to worry about your child just being outside getting shot.”

Sanders said she’s grateful for the food from Richmond Public Schools, and says she occasionally gives food to neighborhood kids who say they’re hungry.

The Richmond Public Schools meal distribution program, like others around the state, continues to evolve during the coronavirus pandemic that caused a surge of Virginians to file for unemployment. Almost 46,300 Virginians filed for unemployment between March 15 and March 21. The previous week 2,706 people filed an unemployment claim, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

The program started with 10 school sites, and has since grown into at least 43 sites throughout the community and 10 school sites.

Erin Stanley, director of family engagement at Richmond Public Schools, said volunteers, bus drivers and the district’s nutrition staff have made the efforts possible. Volunteers were using personal vehicles to drop off food, but RPS decided that school buses would better suit the cause.

“We did that for a couple of reasons,” Stanley said. “One, so we can get more food out, and two, because school buses are a bit more well known and probably more trusted than individual volunteers going in with their personal vehicles.”

Plastic bags filled with milk cartons, sandwiches, apples and snacks are handed out in neighborhoods found on the Richmond Public Schools’ website. School distribution sites are open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and neighborhood times vary by location. Any student in the school district can use the program, Stanley said.

Volunteer Natalie Newfield said many families she gave meals to lost jobs in the restaurant industry.

 “They’re changing the way they do deliveries, which is amazing,” Newfield said. “Every day you give them a count. If they need more food, the next day, all of a sudden your bus has more food. It’s incredible.”

Statewide efforts to feed children in Virginia

When schools closed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture activated the Summer Meals Program, which funds public schools and local organizations to serve breakfast and lunch during the summer.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, pressed the USDA to change its policy which required parents to have their child with them when picking up food.

Roem said it was difficult for a Prince William County mother to access food for her two children. Her daughter has an immune system deficiency caused by recent cancer treatments, making her susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.

“When you’re talking about a 7-year-old with cancer, we have to really evaluate what is it that our policy is trying to prevent that is more important than feeding a child with cancer,” Roem said.

Roem said she was able to bring groceries to the family, who live in the representative’s district. As they carried bags of food inside, Roem said the mother told her children, “We’re eating tonight.”

“I fought with the USDA for a full week and won a major, major victory for kids throughout Virginia and across the country, and especially immunocompromised kids, to make sure that they stay safe, that they stay home,” Roem said.

The USDA waived the restriction last week, and states can now choose to waive the in-person policy for students to receive food.

No Kid Hungry, a national campaign launched by nonprofit Share Our Strength, is offering emergency grants to local school divisions and organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grants can help people who are trying to make meal distribution possible, but may lack the equipment necessary to feed children outside of a school setting.

Sarah Steely, senior program manager at No Kid Hungry Virginia, said the grants can fund necessities like vehicles, gas, coolers and equipment to keep food safe during distribution.

“Those might not be resources that folks already have, because those aren’t service models that were expected of them before,” Steely said, “so we’re here to support community organizations and school divisions as they figure out what it is they need to distribute to kids.”

The organization works with YMCAs, childcare centers, libraries and all 133 of Virginia’s public school divisions.

The organization recently activated their texting hotline for those unsure of where their next meal is coming from: text “FOOD” to 877-877. The hotline is generally used during the summer months, but was reactivated to combat food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Steely called the hotline “a tool in a bigger toolbox of resources” and encouraged families to contact their local school board for updated information about their locality.

“They count on that as a primary source of nutrition, so with schools closed, we want to make sure that the students who are accessing meals at school are now accessing those meals at home,” Steely said.

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University of Richmond donates thousands of safety gloves from science labs to local healthcare workers

Faculty gathered up nearly 7,000 pairs of gloves to donate to local healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic where supplies are running low.

RVAHub Staff

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As classes moved to remote learning at the University of Richmond, science laboratories across campus are vacant and the safety gear in them is not being used. This prompted UR chemistry and biology professors, in collaboration with administrators, to donate boxes of safety gloves to the Central Virginia Incident Management Team to be delivered to healthcare providers across the state most in need of supplies.

Faculty gathered up nearly 7,000 pairs of gloves to donate to local healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic where supplies are running low.

The idea began with, and is spearheaded by, chemistry professor Mike Leopold, who recognized that healthcare workers were in need of additional personal protective equipment, including gloves.

“I realized that in the transition to remote learning, we would have a number of boxes of gloves sitting around in our labs for months,” said Leopold. “I thought why not make great use of them now and help keep those on the front lines fighting this pandemic safe.”

Leopold initially took the supply from his own research lab to an ER nurse he knows because she had indicated to him they were running low. Leopold realized the broader opportunity and after consulting with the administration at UR about donating more of this specific item, reached out to others.

The gesture spurred additional UR faculty to investigate their own supplies and has prompted healthcare workers to talk with other universities about this possible option.

“As I expected, the response from my colleagues was amazing and we are delighted to help assist in this small way. We hope it encourages others,” Leopold said.

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Distance learning poses challenges for students, teachers

Students and teachers are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered.

Capital News Service

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By Jimmy O’Keefe

Students and teachers at all levels of education are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered.

“I think we’re all really frustrated,” said Jordyn Wade, a fashion design major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “But we know that our professors are doing what they can in a really unprecedented situation.”

Wade said that she and her classmates are now meeting remotely through Zoom, a video conferencing platform. Zoom allows students to meet virtually during a time when people can’t meet physically, but distance learning poses challenges for courses that require more than a lecture, like art classes and lab components of science classes.

Students like Wade worked mostly with industrial grade equipment.

“We kind of rely heavily on the school for supplies like sewing machines and the industrial equipment that can cost thousands of dollars,” Wade said. “Now we just stare at each other and they ask us,‘What can you guys do? Can you hand sew an entire jacket before the end of the month?’”

Wade said that one of the most frustrating aspects of distance learning is not being able to receive direct feedback from professors.

“We can’t ask our professors what’s wrong with the garment that we’re making, we can just send them pictures and hope they can figure it out from afar,” Wade said.

Chloe Pallak, a student in VCU’s art program said that many of her projects are being graded on whether or not they are complete.

“To get a grade for an assignment, you just have to do it,” Pallak said. “It really takes away the motivation of wanting to make art and not just complete the assignment.”

Courses that include lab components, such as classes in environmental science, also face challenges as classes move online. Griffin Erney, an environmental studies major at VCU, said that distance learning prevents students from accessing lab materials that are typically provided in the classroom.

“Before the class was online we would just do different activities and be provided with the materials,” Erney said. “Having labs online is more challenging, on top of all the work that we already have.”

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that closed down all K-12 schools in the state for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

Davide D’Urbino, a chemistry and organic chemistry teacher at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, said he plans on using computer applications to supplement labs that cannot be completed in the classroom. He said the school division requested that teachers hold off on introducing new learning material.

“The expectation was that you could teach new stuff, but then you have to go back in class and reteach it,” D’Urbino said.

D’Urbino said teachers aren’t allowed to teach new material online because some students may not have internet access. He said he understands why the school division has placed these restrictions but said it “feels weird.”

Distance learning has also presented challenges to teachers trying to adapt to lecturing online.

“Some people say teaching is 75 percent theater, you just go out there and do improv. You can’t really do that online,” D’Urbino said. “It’s very difficult to intervene and correct course if you realize something isn’t quite working out.”

Teachers have also scrambled for ways to continue instruction for students that lack access to the internet.

Janice Barton, a 5th grade science teacher at Honaker Elementary School in Russell County, said that about half of the 60 students she teaches have access to the internet. She said the school is using Google Classroom, a web platform that allows teachers to share files with students through the internet. For students without internet access, teachers create physical packets of learning content.

“We’re working as grade levels, we’re going in and working together to put the packets together,” Barton said. “We have pickup days and drop-off days, and that’s how we are working and dealing with this right now.”

Barton said the school uses phone calls, emails, and the app Remind, which allows teachers to send messages to students to keep in contact with parents and students.

While local school divisions are tasked with making decisions on how to pursue distance learning, the Virginia Department of Education issued guidance to help divisions continue instruction.

VDOE’s guidance to local school divisions includes offering instruction during the summer of 2020, extending the school term or adjusting the next, and adding learning modules to extended school calendars.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane issued guidance regarding eight high school senior graduation requirements and will be issuing further guidance for half of those, which can not be waived outright.

Two other graduation requirements — training in emergency first aid and the completion of a virtual course — require action by the General Assembly in order to be waived.

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